East Lothian politics: a personal perspective

John Home Robertson MSP

The Berwick & East Lothian by-election of October 1978, following the sudden death of John P. Mackintosh, was a tough contest. The big rural constituency had always been closely fought between the two main parties, with solid Labour support in mining communities and a Tory tradition in agricultural areas. The constituency was very rural – it contained the homes of at least six hereditary Members of the House of Lords, and it had just one set of traffic lights (a pedestrian crossing on the A1 road in Tranent High Street).

As a 29-year-old Berwickshire farmer with very little political experience, I was an unlikely choice as the Labour candidate – perhaps some wise old trade union tacticians reckoned that a farming candidate might win extra rural votes and reduce the risk of a Tory victory.

After an old-fashioned campaign, with packed public meetings in halls throughout the constituency addressed by national figures including several Labour Cabinet Ministers and the new Tory Leader, Margaret Thatcher, I emerged from the count in Haddington’s Corn Exchange as the new Labour MP at 2 a.m. to find an enthusiastic crowd singing the Red Flag. That was the beginning of a 23-year career at Westminster, followed by my election as East Lothian’s first Member of the new Scottish Parliament in 1999.

I inherited a constituency covering the two former counties of East Lothian and Berwickshire. The old counties and burghs had been replaced by two-tier (Region and District) Councils in 1974. Those changes to local government boundaries, combined with the increasing population of East Lothian, led to the creation of a new East Lothian parliamentary constituency in 1983. The loss of mainly Tory Berwickshire and the addition of predominantly Labour Musselburgh helped me to survive the national rout of the Labour Party in the 1983 general election.

The constituency’s history as a closely fought marginal seat meant that we had a lot of political activity and high turnouts of voters at elections. It was not uncommon for some villages to produce 90% turnouts. In the early part of my career, quarterly Constituency Labour Party meetings were social as well as political gatherings hosted by branches in towns and villages by rota on Sunday afternoons. Now our Party meetings are more frequent but smaller, as people get more of their politics from the broadcast media.

In 1978 the economy of East Lothian was heavily dependant on coal mining and agriculture, with some newer employment at Cockenzie Power Station, Dunbar’s Cement Works and LEMAC (Lothian Electric Machines) in Haddington. Hundreds of East Lothian miners travelled by bus to man the three shifts at Monktonhall and Bilston Glen collieries, and as a local MP I had regular meetings with local representatives of mining Unions and management as well as making annual visits underground to see conditions at the coalface. The yearlong miners’ strike of 1984 was a terrible ordeal for East Lothian’ s mining communities, and both collieries have since been closed. But a strong pride in the mining heritage lives on in those communities and in the Industrial Heritage Museum at Prestongrange.

My predecessor is said to have described East Lothian as ‘not so much a county, more a collection of warring villages’. Our towns and villages still have strong local loyalties and chronic suspicions that they are getting less public funding than their neighbours. That strong local identity makes East Lothian an interesting, and sometimes demanding, constituency to represent. I get hundreds of letters every week, and I hold regular “surgeries” in twenty towns and villages around the county. I was one of the first MPs to establish a Parliamentary Office in my constituency following changes to the system of allowances for Members in 1986.

The changing local economy has brought new high-technology industries to the county, including Torness nuclear power station, a number of engineering businesses, and new science-based companies. The leisure and tourism sector is growing too, thanks to the environmental attractions of the Lammermuirs and the Firth of Forth as well as old and new golf courses. But an increasing number of people have to commute to work outside the county, and large numbers of houses have been built for Edinburgh commuters.

East Lothian has been transformed from a largely rural county with an economy based on primary industries into a more mixed and modem economy with newer industries and a potentially beneficial relationship with Edinburgh. While the population of most parts of Scotland is declining, East Lothian is growing. So, while many MPs have been preoccupied with rearguard campaigns to save declining industries, I have had the good fortune to be able to work with East Lothian Council and the Local Enterprise Company to take advantage of new opportunities. The privatisation of public services and utilities during the 1980s and new constraints on local authorities reduced the ability of MPs and elected councillors to influence decisions that affect citizens. Before that, I was able to make direct representations on behalf of constituents to publicly-accountable managers of British Rail, bus companies, British Telecom and the South of Scotland Electricity Board, among others. And East Lothian District Council had a large stock of Council houses to let to people who needed affordable rented homes. The efficiency of private management has come at the cost of public accountability, and the sale of Council houses has created a serious shortage of rented housing, with five thousand applicants on a long waiting list in East Lothian.

The biggest local campaigning issue of recent years has been the Al road. When I was first elected, the highway from Musselburgh to Berwick was an old single carriageway following the ancient route of the ‘great north road’ between London with Edinburgh. That ‘highway’ went directly through the streets of Haddington, Macmerry, Tranent and Musselburgh, and increasing traffic caused serious congestion and frequent accidents. Efforts to get the road dualled ran into stubborn resistance from the Scottish Office. Parliamentary Questions and letters to Ministers got short shrift, so I organised a meeting of all the MPs and local councils between Musselburgh and Morpeth in Haddington in 1989 to launch a co-ordinated cross-border campaign to get the A1 upgraded. We got strong support from local businesses and communities, and I presented an enormous petition after putting the case for the A1 in the Commons. That led to the dualling of the A1 from Musselburgh to Haddington, but, to my acute embarrassment, the A1 project was caught by the incoming Labour Government’s moratorium on new road building in 1997. I kept up the campaign first at Westminster and then in the Scottish Parliament, and work is starting on the dualling of the road to Dunbar in 2002.

The history of East Lothian as we know it might have come to an end in 1994, when the Government tried to split the county between two new local authorities. Strong community-based opposition in petitions and public demonstrations, supporting the ‘Standing Firm for East Lothian’ campaign, met that threat to the identity of the county. I was a member of the Commons Standing Committee, which considered that legislation, and I was acutely aware of the responsibility that I was carrying when I moved the amendment to Schedule 1 of the Local Government etc (Scotland) Bill to keep East Lothian together. Happily, we won the day.

Apart from my constituency responsibilities, and spells as an Opposition Front Bench Spokesman on Scottish Affairs and on Agriculture, my main interests at Westminster were the Scottish constitutional question and Defence. I was acutely aware of the significance of the three occasions when I voted to support military action by British Forces – in the Falklands, in the Gulf and in Yugoslavia. I was a Member of the Commons Defence Select Committee from 1990 to 1997, so I visited troops involved in operations in Kuwait and Bosnia as well as soldiers deployed in Northern Ireland. A national newspaper identified East Lothian as the constituency with the largest number of military personnel in the Gulf, including many soldiers in the Royal Scots, so it was an immense relief that they did not suffer any casualties. And it was a pleasure to be able to support the successful campaign against the amalgamation of the Royal Scots regiment shortly afterwards.

The sight of burning villages and ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Yugoslavia during a Defence Committee visit to British troops in the United Nations Protection Force in 1993 made a deep impression on me. A reception centre for Bosnian refugees released from Serbian concentration camps was established in North Berwick, and I was one of a number of volunteers from East Lothian who took part in relief convoys to Sarajevo and other besieged communities in central Bosnia during the conflict. Having a truck driver’s license, I was of some use to the Edinburgh Direct Aid organisation. There is no hiding place for MPs – queuing in the canteen at the army camp in Gornji Vakuf I was identified by a soldier from Tranent who gave me a special helping of breakfast.

Two of my predecessors as MPs for East Lothian made major contributions to the debate about the constitutional position of Scotland within the United Kingdom. Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun led the unsuccessful campaign for Scotland to retain its Parliament at the time of the Treaty of Union in 1707. And John P. Mackintosh, who was Professor of Politics at Edinburgh University as well as MP for Berwick & East Lothian, led the modern debate about democratic devolution to a Scottish Parliament. The Labour Party in East Lothian supported the case for devolution long before it became fashionable, just as we had been almost unique in supporting British Membership of the European Community in 1975.

During my time at Westminster I was constantly aware of the remoteness of Scotland’s government and the need for democratic control of the powerful bureaucracy of the Scottish Office. Devolution seemed a forlorn hope under a very unionist Tory government, but I always hoped to be elected to a Scottish Parliament. Labour won the 1997 election with a mandate for constitutional reform, and the referendum result in East Lothian (74% for a Scottish Parliament and 63% for it to have tax varying powers) exactly reflected the national vote. I was elected as East Lothian’s first member of the new Scottish Parliament in 1999, holding a ‘dual mandate’ in both Parliaments until the 2001 General Election.

After a year as the Minister for Fisheries and Forestry in Donald Dewar’s first Scottish Executive, I took responsibility for overseeing the construction of the new Parliament Building at Holyrood. Designed by the Catalan architect, Enric Miralles, who died soon after the start of construction, the modern design and the high cost of the Holyrood Building has generated much controversy, just as the new Westminster Building was criticised in 1840, but hopefully future generations will appreciate the millennium achievement of Scotland’s new Parliament.

The role of Member of Parliament has changed radically in recent years. In my childhood an MP was a remote figure that did important things in London, whereas now, happily, Parliamentarians have much closer contact with citizens. Most return to their constituencies every weekend, and all MPs have regular surgeries and local offices with staff to deal with all sorts of casework. But an unhealthy contempt for democratic institutions in the news media could do lasting damage to our hard-won democracy. 85% of East Lothian’s electors turned out to vote in 1974, but at the General Election of 2001 the turnout was down to 62%. The membership and local activity of political parties has fallen too.

The challenge for the beginning of the new millennium is to inspire future generations to take an interest in local, national and international policy ideas. East Lothian’s representatives have played leading roles in major debates in the past and we can do it again.